How to Celebrate Thanksgiving like the Pilgrims of 1621

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This post is part of the 2019 Homeschooling Through the Holidays series and was written by Penny Rogers from Our Crazy Adventures in Autismland.

The first Thanksgiving, celebrated by Pilgrim colonists and Wampanoag Indians in 1621, was very different from the traditional Thanksgiving we observe every November in modern day America. Having barely survived their first New England winter, the Pilgrims, upon late year harvesting, set aside a day of giving thanks. They could not have accomplished this without assistance from the native peoples. Modern day Americans interested in duplicating this first Thanksgiving meal will be in for a surprise. Among the several missing ingredients was the dominant part of each contemporary Thanksgiving feast, the turkey.

What was served at the First Thanksgiving in 1621?

Writers and food historians differ as to what specific foods were served at that first Thanksgiving. Anthropology professor Anthony Aveni, for example, writes that Pilgrim men were sent out to kill wild turkeys and other fowl for the feast. British historian Godfrey Hodgson, however, denies that wild turkey was part of the feast, citing the archeological absence of any turkey bones found at the early settlement as well as the inability to shoot turkeys with the type of weaponry used by the Pilgrims.

Fowl killed for the meal included duck and geese. Original source records from that early period all state that when the Wampanoag Indians arrived, they brought five slain deer. Thus, the first Thanksgiving featured venison, although it was cooked as a stew that included beans, corn, and squash.

What food was missing from the first Thanksgiving that we eat now?

The Pilgrims served no pumpkin pies, although pumpkins were grown by the native peoples. In later years, pumpkin slices were fried and then baked as a pie. But in 1621, the Pilgrims had no ovens. Additionally, sweet potatoes did not exist in New England. This also was missing at the first Thanksgiving.

Cranberries grew in abundance and the native peoples cooked them as a sauce for fish and meats. Europeans, however, would not learn about this until the 1670s. Further, in 1621, the Pilgrims had no sugar, necessary in the preparation of a Thanksgiving cranberry sauce.

Corn bread, however, was most likely present at the first Thanksgiving. According to Cahill, corn bread as well as corn on the cob was introduced by the Wampanoags at this first festival. Indian bread was made from roasted corn ears, something that could even be taken on long journeys. Beans were also prominently featured. Beans contain protein and came in a number of varieties. In future generations, New England would become famous for baked beans, usually made with the kidney bean.

Why did the Pilgrims celebrate the first Thanksgiving in 1621?

The Pilgrims learned much from their Indian neighbors. Native peoples showed the Europeans how to use fish such as lobster to fertilize crops. Unlike Europeans used to the crop-rotation methods dating back to the Middle Ages, Indians in New England grew most of their crops together so that one type of plant would enhance the growth of others. Pumpkins, for example, grew on the outer rim, thus protecting corn, squash, and peas from weeds.

How can we celebrate like the Pilgrims in 1621?

If you’re desiring to replicate the first Thanksgiving, you must be prepared to give up apple and pecan pies, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and the centerpiece roasted turkey. Substituting venison, which is sold at places like Whole Foods or can be ordered online, cooked as a stew with the appropriate vegetables and served in a common bowl would be a courageous start.

Not all foods, however, need to be so different. In 1621, the Indians heated their corn, creating popcorn. The Pilgrims had butter, saved from their voyage. Although rancid, the Indians doused the buttery liquid over their popcorn, perhaps the first time in America that anyone snacked on hot buttered popcorn.

Complete your first Thanksgiving study by eating hot buttered popcorn while watching a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. The video has a fabulous retelling of the Mayflower to first Thanksgiving story. It’s a great way to end a unit on the Pilgrims of 1621.


Penny blogs over at Our Crazy Adventures In Autismland. Based on her own personal experiences with autism, she educates autism families on how to navigate their world from diagnosis to adulthood. She offers real life advice and ideas through her blog by providing homeschool printables, at home therapy techniques, ebooks and DIY posts. You can also follow her adventures on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or in her group, Life In Autismland.


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